Behind the Discovery and Publication of Aqir al-Shamoos

Amongst archaeologists, there are a number of ‘firsts’ we all remember. Our first archaeology course, our first fieldwork experience, our first ‘cool’ discovery. Recently, I had a memorable first – my first peer-reviewed publication. Interestingly, the publication is about a major first discovery for Arabia. In this post I want to give you a behind-the-scenes look at what went into this discovery and the subsequent publication.

Overview of Aqir al-Shamoos

In case you want to read or skim the paper before reading the rest of the post, here are two ways you can access it:

  1. Directly from Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy
  2. My Academia.edu Page

What’s the discovery?

We discovered the site of Aqir al-Shamoos in Oman. This is the first site known in Arabia that produced ancient soft-stone vessels.

One of the entrances to Aqir al-Shamoos.

What is soft-stone?

Soft-stone is made up of chlorite and steatite minerals. These minerals come from igneous rocks like gabbro and harzburgite. Soft-stone is similar to soapstone, which also is found in Oman.

Soft-stones have a low hardness (1-5) on the Moh’s hardness scale. This makes them easy to carve. They can be shaped into various types of vessels that can hold both liquids and solids.

Soft-stone vessels dating between 2500 BCE – 300 BCE (Middle Bronze Age – Iron Age) have been found at many archaeological sites around the Gulf. These items were clearly part of a larger inter-regional trade network.

This is a fragment of a spouted bowl made from soft-stone. Image taken from Harrower et. al 2016 and originally photographed and drawn by H. David-Cuny.

Why is this discovery significant?

Soft-stone was an important mineral resource in antiquity. In Oman, there are geological contexts where raw soft-stone would be available, but we did not know where vessels were being produced. Until now!

Aqir al-Shamoos is the first prehistoric site known in Arabia that produced soft-stone vessels. We know this because we found hundreds of soft-stone objects at various stages in the manufacturing sequence. These finds are significant because we can learn a lot about ancient soft-stone vessel production like:

  • What type of objects were made
  • What tools they were made with
  • The different stages of production
Examples to various tool traces. Photographed by H. David-Cuny in Harrower et al. 2016

How did you discover the site?

I’m part of the Archaeological Water Histories of Oman Project (ArWHO). We have been systematically surveying the Al-Dhahirah Governate of Oman since 2011. During our survey, local residents have offered information about potential archaeological sites in the area.

In 2013, while conducting archaeological survey, we met two elderly Omani brothers living nearby Aqir al-Shamoos. They told us that there were a lot of historical places in the wadi valley behind their house. At the time we were only able to visit some of the local sites and planned to return to complete our survey. The brothers wanted to make sure that the area was not forgotten and since they did not see us for some time, they alerted Oman’s Ministry of Heritage and Culture.

One of the co-authors of the paper, Suleiman al-Jabri, is part of a nearby regional office of the Ministry of Heritage and Culture.  He went to check out the area with one of his colleagues and found numerous sites – including Aqir al-Shamoos.

In 2015, Suleiman and the rest of the ArWHO team, directed by Michael Harrower and field directed by Ioana A. Dumitru, returned to the area. Ioana was one of the first team members to identify soft-stone objects at Aqir al-Shamoos.

These objects are quite tricky to see and you have to train your eye to find them. It’s like an archaeological “Magic Eye”. The team collected a sample of soft-stone objects. These finds were communicated to Hélène David-Cuny, an expert on archaeological soft-stone in Arabia and fellow co-author, who later joined the team.

In January 2016, Michael, Hélène, and I returned to Aqir al-Shamoos to conduct a more comprehensive survey. The wealth and nature of the soft-stone finds led us to conclude that this site produced soft-stone vessels in antiquity.

The discovery of Aqir al-Shamoos was truly a team effort amongst members of our team, local residents, and government officials.

Total station for archaeological survey at Aqir al-Shamoos

What was your role?

For this project, I had three main roles.

  1. I coordinated the design and implementation of the 2016 field survey at Aqir al-Shamoos.
  2. I assisted Hélène in recording, describing, and categorizing 261 soft-stone objects.
  3. Some parts of the report I wrote were revised and included in the final publication.
ArWHO’s 2016 field crew at Aqir al-Shamoos.

What was your timeline for publishing?

Sometimes it is difficult for scholars to figure out when to publish findings. We want to make sure we have done the proper analysis and put forth a solid interpretation. On the other hand, we don’t want to sit on our material for years or even decades.

Our team decided that we had enough material to conduct a preliminary analysis and put forth a solid interpretation (Aqir al-Shamoos = ancient soft-stone production site). We began writing the paper in the field (January 2016). Then we submitted the paper for review in early April 2016. A couple of weeks later our peer-reviewers provided some feedback. We submitted the changes in May 2016 and our revised manuscript was accepted for publication in the November 2016 issue.

I think we had a relatively quick timeline for publishing. This was possible for two reasons. First, we were all motivated authors and our internal process did not succumb to major delays. Second, we communicated with our selected journal’s editor from the very beginning. We wanted to make sure they were interested in our work and could offer a quick timeline for publication.

The left image is a spouted bowl found in the field and the right image is that same bowl drawn and photographed by H. David-Cuny and published in Harrower et al. 2016.

What’s next?

Our main short-term goals include:

  1. Precisely mapping the architecture of the site to see if certain areas were used for specific activities.
  2. Finding the geological source for the soft-stone found at the site.
  3. Seeing if soft-stone vessels found at other sites in Arabia originated from Aqir al-Shamoos.

You might be wondering, “Why isn’t excavation on this list?” It’s one of our long-term goals. However, there are still things we want to (and can!) learn before embarking on excavation.

Aqir al-Shamoos provides a wealth of opportunities for future research and we’re excited to continue our work there.

Do you have any burning questions about Aqir al-Shamoos or our publication process? Sound off below! 

Special thanks to Michael Harrower, Ioana A. Dumitru, Hélène David-Cuny, Jyothi Nathan, and Christian Staudt for providing helpful feedback on this post. 

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Smiti Nathan

I’m an archaeologist that travels around the world for both work and pleasure. I have a penchant for exploring ancient and modern places and the people, plants, and foods entangled in them. I write about archaeology, travel, and productivity.

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